I'm an avid archer; I have been for years. It's a lot of time spent in the woods, a lot of rough joking with hunters, and a lot of...weirdness. Especially where I live now.
I grew up in a sprawling city down in Florida, far away from anything that even half resembled wilderness. The most interaction I had with forests was a hiking trail through some young trees behind my old elementary school.
We moved north a few years back, and the experience changed. The area here is a weird mix of urban and rural, with larger cities backing right up to hundreds of miles of forest. From my apartment, I can drive twenty minutes in any direction and be surround by either high rises or old growth forests.
The club I joined - which I won't name because it's easily searchable - when we first came here bordered on one of these forests, tucked into its own plot of woodland reserved for meandering archery ranges. The neighboring national park boasted hiking and bike trails, a lake for canoeing, and a campground or two, but I never had much reason to go any further past the park entrance than the club. Eighty acres is plenty when all you want to do is practice your aim.
It's also just enough to get you good and lost before dark.
You can laugh, but the terrain's all steep hills and woods, with only a thin trail carved out for archers. It's great practice for hunters, but if you've misjudged the light you've got left or just don't know the trail well enough, it's easy to lose your way. We used to tell people that no matter which way you went, you'd hit civilization, so they shouldn't worry too much if they got turned around - but we also warned each other to not start the trails late in the afternoon, and to never go alone unless you knew your way around.
I thought it was just practical advice, but I soon found out that there was good reason why that "practical advice" was given so frequently - and why the night shoots were cancelled indefinitely.
You see, we used to host the most awesome zombie shoots: human-shaped 3-D and paper targets with zombies on them, decorated with florescent paint, that could be shot with arrows that had LED lights in the nocks. Flashlights were used, but some of the more intense archers in the group busted out night vision goggles. We'd have two or three a year once the weather was warmer, along with a cookout.
That all stopped in July of 2012.
This particular event started in the afternoon, with people eating and (perhaps stupidly) drinking before heading out onto the ranges around 5:00.
There was a teenaged girl in the club, a daughter of one of the more active members, who didn't like to shoot, but liked to hike the range trails for the exercise. That afternoon, she took off with a group of her friends and hadn't returned by the time the sun had begun to set.
At the time, I was manning the registration desk, and had been getting concerned about her because the woods get pretty dark long before nightfall; it's hard to make out the trail in the dusk, and easy to wander off. I knew she hadn't taken a flashlight. However, she was the daughter of a hunter, and the kids in the area knew how to take care of themselves pretty well. I figured either she was using her cell phone's flashlight, or had met up with some of the archers on the range and was following them back.
I had stepped outside to turn the timed exterior lights on when I saw her; the clubhouse and practice range sat in a little clearing on a small hill, and the area was set up to allow for midnight shooting thanks to powerful floodlights installed every ten feet. She was standing just beyond the treeline, partially in the glow of the lights.
Her friends weren't with her. I thought that was weird, so I called out to her.
"Hey, you guys okay?"
She stared at me, then seemed to smile. It was a bit weird, but at the time I chalked it up to teenage antics, rolled my eyes, and turned back to the clubhouse.
When I turned around again, she was right beside me. I had no clue how she got there so quickly - it must have been sixty yards from the treeline to the clubhouse - but the closeness made me back up a step. She moved past me and sat down on one of the mismatched chairs, still smiling, staring a little too intently at me. There was something off about the whole situation, and I remember thinking at the time that she might be in shock.
"Where'd your buddies go?" I asked, trying to seem casual, but looking over her now for signs of injury. Had someone slipped? Was she hurt? There were drunken rednecks with bows wandering the woods in the dark. Oddly enough, that didn't concern me as much as it should have. In the decades-long history of the club, no one had ever been shot. Oh, people had put arrows through their own hands or taken off skin from their forearms, but these were good marksmen. They knew when something wasn't a target.
I didn't see blood, anyway.
"Down in the valley," she answered thickly. Her voice unsettled me; there was something wrong with the way she spoke, almost as if she was slurring her words.
I wondered if she meant the ravine; there wasn't a valley of any sort on our property, but there was a ravine near the twentieth target on the 3-D course that could cause a nasty fall if people weren't mindful of it.
"You mean the ravine? Did someone fall in the ravine, over near twenty?"
"Down in the valley," she said again. I realized the unsettling thing about her voice was how disjointed the words were, as though the language was foreign to her. Something about this began to seem incredibly wrong to me.
I started to notice the smell then, metallic and sharp, cloying, like copper, ammonia, and honey. It's a smell women learn to recognize: menstrual fluid and urine. It grew so strong, I think I gagged, but still she grinned unsettlingly at me. I thought she'd pissed herself. "They're all waiting."
I said something about calling her dad and rummaged through my bag to find my phone. As soon as I took my eyes off her, the smell vanished. I looked up and realized she was gone, and for a moment I just stood there holding my phone, staring at the spot where she'd been. She hadn't made a sound.
I called her dad, of course. He told me she and her friends had met up with him when it had gotten too dark to hike, and were with him now, out on the 3-D course. They weren't anywhere near the clubhouse, and she hadn't left his side all evening.
I don't know if they were fucking around with me or what, but when I told the club's board of directors about what happened, they prohibited any further night shoots. They still allow people to shoot out there alone at night, but...Well. You know. I don't go out there.